On Sunday I returned to the South East from my second 10 day Vipassana silent meditation course which took place at ‘Dhamma Dipa’ in the undulating hills of Hereford, just 20 curling miles from Gloucester. The course, once again, has affected me deeply and more than can really be expressed in words, but I will attempt to at least try and get something of it down…
The practise of Vipassana meditation occurs in three trainings; Sila (sheela), Samadhi (samardee) and Panna (Panya). Sila is living with morality. At the start of the course you have to commit to sticking to several key precepts; abstaining from: killing any being, stealing, sexual misconduct, telling lies and intoxication. These precepts aim to help you abide by a life of morality during the course (and of course, if it suits you, after the course). If these precepts are constantly broken then it means the foundation of the meditation will not be solid and you will not get good results.
As this foundation is set up you are then able to enter into the field of Samadhi, ‘Mastery of the mind’. Because Vipassana meditation is based upon observing your own sensations you need to sharpen your mind, so you spend several days practicing Anapana meditation. This involves observing your natural breath as it goes in and out of your nose. Because this is something that is always occurring and is natural it means that your mind is slowly slowly focused in on observing the reality of the moment in and around the nose. Of course, every five seconds you mind begins to wander, thoughts of other things crop up, worries, wishes, angers, none of which are related to the reality of the moment, but as soon as you realise your mind has wandered you once again bring it back to the breath, and observation of the reality of the moment can begin again. Like this, over 4 days you are able to sharpen and focus your mind and it becomes very aware of sensations around the nose. A subtler reality, subtler sensations, can be felt that you were never able to feel before because your mind was constantly thinking of things related to the past (something which is gone forever) or things related to the future (things that have not yet occurred). In fact, just try it now; sit back, close your eyes and focus on your breath going in and out of your nose, try and sit dead still for 8 minutes, just 8 minutes, and see what occurs in your mind. See how quickly the mind switches from thought to thought, from desire of something that you want to happen to annoyance of something that has happened, to this, to that.
Seriously, try it out now.
How agitated our minds are, constantly agitated. And how little control we have over them! We know our minds are very powerful and yet we have no control of them, its like letting wild beasts flail around at random. This Anapana meditation helps to take back control of the mind, to calm the agitation. If you really consider the thoughts that occur in your mind you will realise that almost every one is something related to the past or the future, our minds do not want to exist in the present, which is, inexorably, the only thing that can ever be occurring.
So, after a couple of days you are able to sense all sorts of tingles, itches, vibrations, buzzes, wetnesses, drynesses etc, that you were never aware of before. Sometimes we do notice these sensations (the massive ones at least, like a big itch of a dribble of perspiration) but what do we do when they occur? Do we acknowledge what is occurring at this moment in the present? ‘Ah there is a sensation occurring under my nose’? No, we react blindly, we scratch the itch. And why? Because our minds are concerned that the itch will continue into the future and we don’t want to be itchy all the time. We miss the most blatant and obvious truth; that all things arise, stay for a period of time (be it a million years or a nanosecond) and pass away. It is a universal constant, everything arises, stays for some time and then passes away. How on earth can we get agitated or angry or greedy for sensations when all of them, sooner or later, pass away? It is not a wise thing to do, surely?! And this is the source of so much misery, because we want pleasant sensations to remain and so get attached to them, we then become negative when they pass away, and we want negative sensations to go away immediately and so get negative when they remain, again, unaware that they always have to pass away anyway.
So, this then takes us into the field of Panna, wisedom, and thus into the field of the Vipassana meditation. Here, you start observing the sensations on all of the body, not just the nose. Having sharpened your mind with Anapana meditation, it is very good at picking up all sorts of sensations. When you focus on them you have to try and remain aware that, sooner or later, they pass away and so, instead of reacting blindly to disliked sensations (like a lot of pain in your legs as you sit for hours!) or with greed/craving for the pleasant sensations, you simply remain equanimous, balanced. You learn, through your own experience and NO ONE ELSE’S that all these sensations pass away, so no attachment to them need be made. Simple, logical (at least in theory).
As you continue, your perception of sensations becomes sharper and you begin to feel sublter and subtler ones, vibrations. At times you are able to perceive the entire outside of your body as it really is, a constant mass of particles that are vibrating, that are arising and passing away with great rapidity. Modern molecular physicists will tell you that everything in the universe is made of particles vibrating. Since 2500 years ago Vipassana meditators have know this but whats more, they haven’t just known it through observation of the outside world, the world beyond their sensations, they have experienced it themselves, that is true Panna, true wisedom, to know something through your own experience, not through someone else’s, and it is this that, ultimately, brings harmony.
The Vipassana meditation courses train in ‘pure Dhamma’ (Dhamma being the law of nature), that is, it is purely about sensations and your own experience, no one elses. This means it is totally universal, anyone can practise it anywhere and at any time. No sectarianism, no ritual, no God or scientist to ask for help from, no picture to put on your wall of some special person, no small figurine to have on the shelf, just ones own mind and body and hard work with which one finds out more truth.
The final part of the meditation involves Metta Bhavna. This involves being aware that one must always share any love and compassion and peace one has found with all other beings and not keep it to oneself. This was the one thing I found hardest to get into on my 1st course (because you imagine sending out the good feelings to all other beings, something that didn’t really fit into my mental paradigm of the way the universe works before), but since, in my own practise I have found it to be positive and after 10 days of intense meditation, the feeling that overcame me when we finally practised Metta Bhavna was unlike anything I have ever known, immposible to describe.
I have come away from this course, once again, totally blown away by the results. As you stop reacting to your thoughts and start observing the reality of the sensations you feel, from moment to moment, the tying of knots and worries stops and old knots start getting undone. After about 5 days I started to feel my brain changing, this is almost impossible to convey in words but its like a rewiring of the neurons occurs and you start becoming more in touch with each moment and less in touch with imagined, illusory moments. After 10 days my head feels so unbelievably light, like it is just air. My thoughts are much clearer, less heavy and individual tasks can be done with greater accuracy and speed. I noticed my guitar playing and creativity improved markedly as well. The food is vegetarian and your body gets detoxed too, your hearing improves as your eyes are closed for most of the day, you become more still and I have found that my immune system has certainly had a boost.
This course is for anyone. It is incredibly hard work; from 4am til 9pm you spend 10 hours meditating for 9 days (the 10th is more relxed, a buffer for the real world). The 10th day is extraordinary, you start talking to the people you have meditated alongside, everyone so happy, so peaceful and it is as though you have been friends for years. Although it is so hard it is also so doable. Being silent is not hard, and no more than 5 people quit in a course of 130 people. People from backgrounds as diverse as an ex alcoholic from Portsmouth who had contemplated suicide, a Mexican living in Edinburgh, an Estonian traveler/chef, a London/Pakistani gay man who had contemplated suicide, a London computer software engineer well into yoga, a retired Canadian ex-financial services advisor, a Swedish activist who had battled depression. The diversity is a testament to the universality of the technique, for everyone. And everyone I spoke to who was doing the course for the first time, bar none, had a life changing experience beyond anything they had imagined.
So, what would I say? If it sounds interesting to you, try it! Go for it! 10 days of ones life is nothing. If you don’t like it then you never have to do it again, at least you have given something new a go. But if you do like it, you might find it changes your life for the better, for the rest of your life. If it’s just two days of greater happiness or 20 years it makes no difference, you will have brought a little more happiness and peace into your life. Those who want to try it will try it, but sometimes it is such a daunting prospect people are put off which is why I am writing this. I want to tell you not to be, grab such a wonderful opportunity with both hands. Only donations are taken for the course, it is nothing to do with material gain, it is to do with finding a life in line with Dhamma.
It seems to me that we are heading for serious disaster on this planet. All the things we are doing to nature cannot continue for long, they simply can’t, something has to break sometime soon, be it our system or nature or a nuclear warhead or our unconscious slumber of ignorance. But it also seems to me that all this damage we are doing to the world comes from our minds. The ideas begin there, the actions can only come after the mind has turned its cogs. So any change we enact in the world has to be accompanied by the more important task of changing the way we think at a very deep level. To change the habit pattern of our minds so that we can find true peace away from ego and illusions. No one else can do this for us, not science, not religion, not God, not political change, only ourselves.
If you want to check the website it is http://www.dipa.dhamma.org/
Phew, I’ll sign off now! In the words of the Pali, Bhavatu Sabba Mangalam (May all beings be happy!)